Explaining the AT 7
The neck and head
I’m always a bit wary of any mention of just the head and neck in reference to what FM called (perhaps unfortunately) Primary Control. His own definitions in his last two books never stop short at just head and neck, but talk of “A relativity in the use of the head, neck, and other parts…” (UOS), and “A certain relativity of the head in relation to the neck and the head and neck in relation to the torso and other parts of the organism” (UCL) There seems to be a deliberate vagueness in these references to a “relativity”, and I have long thought, as did Walter Carrington, that FM is pointing to something that is well recognized as a mark of good coordination in horses. Magnus’s reflexes aren’t considered adequate explanations scientifically now for either animals or humans, and in the schooling of dressage horses the aim is a total pattern of coordination. In a malcoordinated horse, the weight of the head and neck is largely held locally by gripping at the base of the skull and the base and underside of the neck. In a horse that is said to to have “self carriage,” the neck and head are rising out of the shoulder area so that neck muscles, back muscles, and the hind quarters are all working together in an integrated fashion. This is also described as the horse “moving forward and up from the hind end.”
Since in a horse the neck and head are way out in front of the support pillars of the legs, how that weight is supported is a major influence on the balance and coordination of the animal. As dressage trainers have long understood, the support needs to be distributed through the entire body, not just held locally by the neck muscles. Margaret Goldie told me FM had said to her he learned a lot from the observation of animals, and especially horses, and of course he was a keen horse rider all his life so he would have well understood this. In the more delicately balanced bipedal humans, we also tend to let the head and neck drop forward relative to the body and the balance on the feet, and, when this becomes a chronic pattern, in us as in a malcoordinated horse the task of head support falls mainly on the neck muscles. This extra demand easily results in potentially damaging compression and distortion of the structures of the neck. So the question becomes one of head support – how is the relatively considerable weight of the head being supported?
In the transcript of his Bedford College Lecture, FM gives hints of this when demonstrating on volunteers. He asks one to think “Let my head come up out of my body.” and adds: “what really needs to happen is that this part of her neck should come back this way” while demonstrating with his hands. His late period way of working with a hand on the top of the head and a hand on the back can be construed as a simple but powerful (and very difficult to do well) method of bringing about head support from the whole body, especially combined with his insistence on not overusing the legs when going in and out of a chair. Walter Carrington mentions a crucial conversation in which FM confirmed the following statement:”that the head went forward on account of its own weight, but that the ‘up’ was a result of the total activity of the body.” (Explaining the Alexander Technique 1992 edition, page 54.) Dr. Tim Cacciatore’s papers also seem to me to point to this.
So the significance of freeing the neck is as part of an overall project of obtaining head support from the whole body. We aim to get a little more freedom in the neck to let the head lighten up so the back lengthens and widens to aid the support of the head (and in the process ungrips the thorax to allow freer breathing), and the limbs are encouraged to function in harmony with this. Asking for some freeing of the neck is the necessary beginning of the process, but fully freeing the neck is the result of, and the indicator of, a different organization through the whole body.
My understanding of this owes a great debt to Walter Carrington, also a devoted horse rider, and to my association with AT teacher and dressage instructor Elizabeth Reese in New York. During the years I worked as an assistant teacher to Walter in his training we had many helpful conversations about the reciprocal nature of the relationship between the head/neck and the rest of the body. In one of these he referred picturesquely to working with that reciprocal relationship as “Playing both ends against the middle.” Constantly moving as a teacher between head and neck and other parts of the body to coax and monitor that integrated coordination the student is continually encouraged to ask for with her/his own directive process. Elizabeth tells me the same expression has been used in her experience with great dressage teachers – not at all coincidentally I’m sure.